Measuring up to achieve Zero Net Energy

September 30, 2013

You’ve heard it on this blog many times before: Successful advocacy organizations tend to have a healthy culture around measurement and evaluation. By setting clear goals and paying attention to what works and doesn’t work, successful groups constantly refine their strategies to achieve the maximum impact.

At the recent Getting to Zero National Forum in Denver, I was struck by how important this concept has become when it comes to buildings.

What do evaluation and measurement have to do with a building’s success? Well, it turns out a lot when you are trying to create a Zero Net Energy building—a high-performing building that produces as much energy as it consumes.

It turns out that setting a goal of achieving zero net energy drives an ongoing focus on actual energy use. And this in turn is transforming the building and design process.

Where architects and designers used to have very little interaction with building owners after handing over the keys, with a ZNE building, there’s ongoing dialogue, collaboration and refinement to ensure a building meets the goal.

Designing a building to achieve ZNE status is just the first step. Working with owners and tenants to make sure a building operates as planned requires regular monitoring, feedback and adjustments – both to a building’s systems, and to how owners and tenants use the building.

From the first ZNE Walgreens retail store, to the Richardsville Elementary School in Kentucky, to the new headquarters of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, ZNE pioneers are demonstrating the true potential of energy efficiency and on-site renewables to make buildings net energy producers instead of consumers.

And why is this important? When you consider that 75 percent of US electricity is used in buildings and that globally another 900 billion square feet will be built and rebuilt by 2030 —essentially 60 percent of the world’s current building stock—there’s a lot at stake.

So, let’s borrow a page back from the building community’s ZNE playbook:

  1. First, the path to success starts with clear goals. And, taking a tip from the ZNE pioneers, don’t shy away from setting an ambitious goal—it can be transformational!
  2. Capture baseline data and develop a simple way to measure progress. We blogged about some online tools to help you do this here.
  3. Build a review of your progress into your organization’s culture. Don’t keep doing what’s not working. Instead, try to understand what’s working and why.

Whether you are a designer trying to make your building as efficient as your models said it would be, or a campaign manager trying to move a bill through Congress, creating a regular feedback loop to illuminate what’s working and not working is a critical element of a successful strategy.

Amy Frykman